Hand Me Down World by Lloyd Jones
It is a tricky little bugger of a book this one. Distant, confusing and perhaps a little cliched in parts, it is also compelling, subtle and maybe even brilliant.
Jones, in his follow-up novel to the acclaimed and Man Booker-shortlisted Mister Pip, tracks an unnamed heroine from the tourist resorts of Tunisia. From there she washes up, quite literally, on the shores of Sicily before making her way to Berlin, mostly on foot, in search of a stolen son.
For the first two-thirds of the book we know this woman and her odyssey only through the people she meets on the road - her hotel maid room-mate, a truck driver, a French poet, a film researcher, a blind man and his New Zealand boarder. Some come to know her well, or at least as well as she will allow. Others cross her path only fleetingly, often with unpleasant results for one or the other.
These witnesses all serve to draw an outline of this woman and her frequently grim journey, which becomes coloured in, if not necessarily less blurred when, in the final third of the novel, she tells her own story.
When Ines, as she comes to be known though it is not her name, replays events the reader thinks they are already familiar with, it becomes clear things have been twisted, glossed over and lied about as each narrator endeavours to show themselves in the best light.
It's not a new storytelling technique, using differing, ultimately self-serving narrators, but Jones employs it effectively, even masterfully, playing with readers' loyalties, expectations, prejudices and perceptions. Our heroine is at first a blank canvas for other people's guilt, greed, anger and need for control. Only now and then is she the object of their kindness or selflessness.
On the negative side, the narrators begin to blur into one. You find yourself having to refer back constantly to recall who did what and who was who, particularly once Ines begins to fill in the story's gaps.
And though all of that seems to be part of the point, the price is a distancing of the reader. Your image of her constantly shifts so she remains too passive and blurred. You find yourself caring less than perhaps you should about her single-minded mission to find her son, the misfortunes that befall her and the decisions she makes.
You do engage a lot more once she begins to speak for herself and you realise she is not the passive victim she appears and the loose ends of her story begin to tie together.
Gaps are filled in and you are forced to confront your own expectations of people, and query your first impressions.
This is easily as sobering a book as Mister Pip, and indeed in some parts it's much darker in a more insidious way. And though it lacks some of the easy charm of the early chapters of that book, Hand Me Down World is more subtly complex and rewarding for it.
The character of Jermayne, the father of Ines' child, is less shades of grey and more "black and white" archetypal villain than he should be. His actions are depressingly predictable when you want him to be more conflicted and interesting. Some of the other characters too come a shade too close to a stock formula.
But elsewhere Jones is masterful in his manipulation of character and reader alike. He slips in key facts and information, the significance of which you notice only much later when they are referred to again.
The Hand Me Down World of the title is the one we inherit through other people's points of view.
Do you love the book instantly? No. But it does linger with you a long time after reading.